Brief Description: Based on historical documents, this picture book depicts eleven African American slaves for sale. Each slave describes in verse his or her own dreams, as contrasted against the reality of their lives.
Date Range: 1828
Original Publication: 2016
Suitable for Grades: 1-6th
Target Audience: Picture Book, Chapter Book, Middle Grade
I don’t know what more I can say about this ingenious book that hasn’t already been written. The format is quite simple: author and illustrator Ashley Bryan’s inspiration is a historic appraisal of a dead plantation owner’s estate that includes the monetary value of his slaves alongside other mundanities such as tools, cotton, and farm animals. Bryan has given each of the enslaved people a strong voice by imagining their rich interior lives. Each African American is introduced in two double-page spreads, the first of which is illustrated with a grim-visaged portrait in muted color tones, labeled at the bottom with their name, age and assessed dollar value. This portrait is accompanied by verses detailing their Anglicized name, their tasks and duties on the plantation and their special skills which bring value to the estate. The following two pages show a colorful scene of this person in hopeful and happier circumstances, many of the verses reflecting their original African name and heritage, their pride in their craftsmanship, and especially their aspirations of freedom. Some tell of rumors they have heard from other slaves about possible escape, further fueling their dreams.
Back matter consists of a note from the author about the book’s inspiration and a transcription of the original document, which is also reproduced several times throughout the text. Reproductions of other historic slave trade documents provide the backdrop to each grim portrait. The contrast between that and the intriguing inner lives of the slaves will illustrate for young readers the atrocities of the institution without belaboring the violence. For example, “$175 Athelia, age 42,” muses: “As slaves, we do what our owners expect and demand of us. As human beings, our real lives are our precious secret.” We can keep our hope alive even in the direst of circumstances. This is a good lesson for all of us.